commentary to Silent night

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Silent night, 3 Variations (in English) for Speaker and mixed Choir a cappella (1974/1980)

Variations 2 and 3 german version

First performance ot the 3 Variations:
Dezember 8, 1974, Hamburg, St. Michaelis
Elisabeth Flickenschildt (Sprecherin), St. Michaelis-Chor, Leitung: Günter Jena

Duration: 9 minutes

Publisher: Schott Music C 52107 / ISMN: 979-0-001-14409-4

Foreword (Schott Music C 52107)

When the newly appointed Director of Church Music, Günter Jena, inaugurated the extremely successful concert event with music and poetry for the Advent season in 1974 which continues to be held up to the present day in Hamburg's largest church, St. Michael, a church steeped in tradition, he requested Bertold Hummel to compose three variations on the universally famous Christmas carol "Stille Nacht" ["Silent Night"] for the choir of St Michael's.
The idea was to incorporate the Speaker who recited seasonal poetry for Advent and Christmas between the musical works into this lied motet. For the first three performances of this composition in the "Hamburg Michel", two of the most famous German actors participated in this event: Elisabeth Flickenschildt (1974/1975) and Heinz Rühmann (l 978).
Following a request by the Würzburg Cathedral Boys' Choir, my father composed an "epilogue from afar" at short notice for a performance of the work in the St. Kilian Cathedral in Würzburg on 26th December 1980. With this movement, he was complying with the necessity for harmony which is most pronounced around this festive season and resolved the otherwise ambiguous final phrase of the third verse in a radiant C-major.
Choirs who wish to incorporate this effective composition into their Christmas repertoire are welcome to make their own decision regarding the culmination of this work.

Martin Hummel (Translation: Lindsay Chalmers-Gerbracht)

Silent night

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin Mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
|: Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth. :|

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
|: Christ the Savior is born. :|

In the course of the première in 1974, Elisabeth Flickenschildt read from the motet "Stille Nacht" ["Silent Night"] and from “Weihnacht im Großstadtbahnhof” [“Christmas in the Big City Railway Station”] by Heinrich Böll, followed by “Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen” [“The Night is Almost Past”] by Jochen Klepper.

The commission for the composition was formulated by Günther Jena as follows:

Dear Mr. Hummel,

The song is enclosed. It must, of course, be pitched higher for the choir. As Ms. Flickenschildt is present, the first stanza could also be set for a speaker heard above the choir – but I do not know if this is suitable, as the story by Böll is to be read immediately before it. The second and third verses should, in my opinion, be interchanged in order to achieve a clearer (dynamic?) intensification. A swelling of the number of singers can also be arranged, there are 90 - 100 singers in the choir.

The whole evening will accompanied by several lighting effects: it begins in an Advent mood in the darkened church, then candles are added and, at the end of the evening, the church is to have festive illumination amid the Christmas jubilation. During the 3rd verse, a spotlight could focus on a golden sun and the risen Christ in the altarpiece and thus, for the first time, make the church noticeably brighter. Unfortunately, I have left the Böll story at home, but you can perhaps imagine roughly what kind of atmosphere he captures in a main station on Christmas Eve: loneliness, abandonment, darkness, bleakness.

With the most hearty greetings,
Günter Jena



Musica sacra, September/Oktober 2007

This piece, written for the choir of the St. Michaelis Church in Hamburg, integrates a speaker into the first variation. Over a cluster, developed three times anew from the motif of the first song, he (or she) recites the first stanza. In the second and third stanzas, the song melody is heard complete and unchanged, first in the alto and then in parallel motion between the soprano and tenor. But what is offered to the listener in the other voices at this point is, in the finest sense, unheard of! No harmonic icing of any kind, no Christmas kitsch, no musical golden locks. Only a completely logical development of motifs, from the pp of the second stanza through ever-greater subdivision of the voices to a ff in the third stanza. And, precisely because this logic is so captivating, the harmonic language, which results from the leading of the individual voices, is so astonishing new and yet as if it could not possibly be otherwise… The third stanza ends with the clusters from the first, while the “musical postscript from afar” presents an entire “stanza” carried by solmisation syllables alone, leading the listener “back home again” to C major. The only snag: even if the title page tells us something else, the choir is in fact divisi in all voices, with the soprano and tenor, at important points, even sub-divided into three parts; it calls for basses who still have resonance on a low g, it needs sopranos who can remain long and effortlessly on a high g in pp, it requires a genuinely great choir.
Stefan Rauh

Fränkisches Volksblatt, 29th December, 1980

Hummel’s four to eight-part choral setting of Gruber’s world-famous melody “Silent Night” (written for Günther Jena’s Michaelis Choir in Hamburg) works with patterns which allow broad underlying layers of sound (with clusters and glissandos) to emerge into vacillation and undulation. From every direction, angel-like voices are heard as sub- and superstructures, while restrained, dissonant conflicts raise the coherent texture above any temptation towards cloyingness.


See also: Christmas Music by Bertold Hummel

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